I have a bittersweet feeling as I type out this review. On one hand, I’m writing about a truly spectacular phone. On the other hand, I’m going to have to surrender it to my boss and go back to my humdrum Blackberry. I love how whenever I pop out of the office for a few seconds I return to find that my phone has gone on some kind of walkabout, being cradled in the grubby hands of one of my coworkers as they coo over this delicate little object in their hands. Make no mistake, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus certainly is a conversation starter in its own right, but the problem with it is that every person you meet will want to get their paws on it, even if for a few fleeting minutes.
There’s plenty of hype surrounding the Galaxy Nexus, and rightly so. Being packed with Android Ice Cream Sandwich not only sweetens the deal, but the phone’s synergy of hardware and software is something of a marvel. Under the phone’s hood is a 1.2GHz Dual-Core Processor that accounts for the phone’s smooth performance and slick presentation, along with the 1GB of RAM. The phone sports the familiar contoured design, and the back panel is made of a flexible textured plastic that makes it easier to grip, and peels away to reveal the SIM card slot. There’s no slot for a microSD card, but you should be able to get everything you need onto the onboard 16GB or 32GB storage. The phone measures 5.33” x 2.67” x 0.37”, and has a remarkable 4.65” display (more on that later). Yes, it’s certainly a larger phone to hold and operate, but you’ll see later on that the phone’s size really does play towards the good side of things. Truthfully though, my brother found it a bit larger to hold and operate properly with one hand, whereas I had no problem using the phone with one hand as I have much longer fingers.
One of the most spellbinding things about the Galaxy Nexus is the screen – it’s mesmerizing to look at. The 1,280x720 pixel Super AMOLED screen looks fantastic in almost any light, and pictures and video look superb on it. Navigating through menus, swiping through icons, even adjusting your wallpaper – all of it shows up brilliantly on the screen. The phone has no problem playing back high quality video, so firing up an episode of Glee while on the metro was pure awesomeness. I did notice a slight quip with the screen when I tilted it a bit, with whites and colors being briefly washed out before returning to normal. This may be due to the automatic brightness setting, but if you keep your phone steady when using it, you shouldn’t notice this too much.
The camera and subsequent photo app have been overhauled as well – the rear camera is a 5MP camera capable of shooting in full HD, with the front-facing camera featuring a 1.3MP resolution for video conferences or to use the Face Unlock feature. The quality of the photos taken with the rear camera were surprisingly good, and I loved that there was no delay in taking a photo and the camera being ready to take another one. Tapping on the screen automatically changes focus to that area, so you can come up with some pretty good shots with a bit of practice. The phone also has a very cool ‘panorama’ mode, which allows you to slowly pan the camera to create one large wide-angle picture. In between the changes to the camera app and the photo-editing options available on the phone, it’s easy to get some great looking photos with just a few taps.
Obviously the biggest overhaul here is the fact that the phone is running Google Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) – version 4.0 of Android sees a much more refined interface and operating system, and even minor tweaks make for a very satisfying user experience. Right after booting up the phone, the main home screen is clean and clutter-free. A Google Search box and text command sits at the top of the screen, with the launcher and four software shortcuts residing at the bottom. The phone also features zero physical buttons (apart from the power and volume rocker), as everything is handled by the Android OS. You will always see three bottoms appear in apps, the first two are the ‘Back’ and ‘Home’ buttons, but the third button is a new feature taken from Honeycomb, and opens up a neat stack of all your running apps, so you can quickly switch to any other app or dismiss them with a quick swipe of your finger. This is a great feature for users who might not necessarily install third-party application management apps, so having it built right into the phone is a big bonus. My one issue is that the menu button has been condensed and tends to move around on screen depending on how it’s deployed in the app you’re using. The interface is also all Google – there are no extra skins or cluttering widgets being bundled here, helping to keep everything clean and trouble-free.
ICS also has many of Google’s own apps being refreshed – the Gmail and Email clients both have had a cleanup, and not only look slicker but also help mange emails in a much better way. The phone also has G+ bundled along for instant Huddles and video conferences thanks to Hangout, so it’s nice to see Google getting more of their apps into their OS. The web browser has also had a makeover, and now finally features proper tabbed browsing. I did notice a few sites occasionally didn’t render properly or had the columns aligned incorrectly, but these were minor annoyances as for the most part browsing the web was much better than in previous versions of Android.
The notification bar has also had a tweaking, and now allows you to swipe away single or multiple notifications from view, as well as displaying more information on some alerts, such as which song you’re listening to or who the sender is for new email. There’s also a handy shortcut to the phone’s Settings app right at the top, which also makes it easier to quickly adjust settings no matter what app you’re in. By far the coolest option I came across is the Data Usage feature – for people like myself who have no idea when they’re actually going over their data limit, this handy feature will track how much data you’ve been using on your phone, and for the most part is fairly accurate, again dismissing the need to have a third-party app monitoring your data usage. Other nifty things in ICS is the much talked about Face Unlock feature, where you stare at your locked phone and it creepily recognizes your face. While it isn’t as secure as having a PIN or unlock pattern on your phone, it’s certainly a cool feature to show off to your friends. For the Android geeks, 4.0 also brings improved developer features as well as the option to take screenshots by simply pressing the power and volume down buttons. You can even connect the phone to your PC via USB and configure the camera to send photos directly to your PC rather than store them on the phone, kind of like a makeshift studio booth. The phone also features NFC to share and connect to other compatible phones and devices, but again its usefulness is up to you.
Voice control seems to be a bit better this time around – by some miracle the phone was able to connect to my archaic Nokia CK-15W car kit and support voice commands, something I’ve never been able to do with prior versions of Android. I was able to send quick text messages, call contacts, and do simple Google searches all with my voice. While plenty of people will boast about Siri’s capabilities on the iPhone, I think the voice control on Android is slowly but surely going to be just as good.
Battery life on the Galaxy Nexus was quite good – on a full charge I was able to get to about 8pm before I was prompted to plug in my charger. This was with Wi-fi always on, about 2 hours of Bluetooth use, occasional 3G data usage, regular phone calls, watching a few HD TV episodes, and listening to some streaming music. Recharging is also quite quick, with the phone being back to full charge in a little under two hours when plugged into a wall socket.
So is this the Android phone you’ve been waiting for? Well for the most part it’s Android in a way that you’ve never seen before, and that’s a genuinely good thing. The phone runs without any hiccups, and the only major issue I found was with the Tweetdeck app, which is down to the app itself and not the phone. ICS brings a sleeker look to Android that users have been wanting for a long time, and it’s nice to see that Google is finally fleshing out the Android OS from its previous cookie-cutter formula. While the phone does take a bit of time to get used to because of its size, it is easily the phone I would recommend for anyone looking to join Android army.